Editor's note: This column was originally published last Saturday, prior to the Celtics winning home contests against both the NY Knicks and Indiana Pacers -- games in which the Celtics' Jaylen Brown collected 11 and six assists, respectively, a two-game career high for Brown.
On Black Friday last November, the Celtics sent me an online discounted-ticket offer, and as an NBA fan, it seemed too good to pass up.
Tickets for select games were almost 50 percent off, and while those opponents were among the worst in the league, I still bought tickets for three games. The first one was the other night, against the San Antonio Spurs, who entered the game 14-22 and had lost four straight. Worse for the Spurs, they were playing the second of back-to-back nights, while the Celtics had been resting comfortably at home for two straight nights.
But after witnessing what I witnessed at TD Garden on Wednesday evening, all I can say is: Any takers for my remaining games?
The 2021-22 Boston Celtics have become one of the most disliked teams around these parts since perhaps the 2001 Boston Red Sox. A close second? Probably the 2020-21 Boston Celtics.
Since Sept. 1, 2020, when the C’s went up 2-0 in their conference semifinal series against the Toronto Raptors in the Orlando “bubble,” their record was a gaudy 54-24 in the pandemic-interrupted season. Since then, this bunch has gone 60-69 over the course of two-plus seasons, and this is simply unimaginable for a team with the on-paper talent that the Celtics have. Heading into the weekend, the C’s are 18-22 and are not even currently eligible for the play-in game, as they sit 11th and only the top 10 teams in each conference qualify.
As mentioned previously, Boston has eight recent first-round picks on the roster, along with the former No. 3 overall pick in the 2007 draft, Al Horford; the second overall pick in the 2014 draft, Jabari Parker; and also the sixth overall pick in that same draft, Marcus Smart, for a total of 11 first-round picks on the team — six of whom were picked in the top six of their drafts, yet this is essentially a .500 team for two years running.
After Wednesday’s debacle at the Garden, in which the rested Celtics lost to the Spurs, 99-97, even though Jaylen Brown had practically an uncontested layup to tie the game in the final seconds and missed it, Thursday night’s meltdown at NYC’s Madison Square Garden was even worse.
But we’ll get to that.
I mentioned in these pages last week that despite its lackluster start to the season, Boston had a chance to get back to or above .500 with a string of upcoming games against teams with losing records, including contests against the Magic, Knicks, Pacers, and the aforementioned Spurs.
Some of the losses leading up to this past week have been downright disheartening, including a pair of losses to the 19-20 LA Clippers, who in both games didn’t have their two best players, Kawhai Leonard and Paul George; back-to-back losses to the 19-19 Washington Wizards in late October; a Thanksgiving-week loss to the Spurs when San Antonio was just 4-13; and perhaps the worst one prior to this past week’s putrid display, a Dec. 27 home loss to the 15-17 Timberwolves when Boston was admittedly missing some players to COVID, including Jayson Tatum, Smart, Dennis Schröder, and Josh Richardson. Minnesota’s lineup, however, was even more ravaged, with just one regular starter available and six of its top eight scorers out, yet the T-Wolves made up an 11-point third-quarter deficit and beat the Celtics, 108-103.
Last Sunday, the 7-29 Orlando Magic visited TD Garden, and if not for allowing the Celtics to rally from 14 points down in the final four minutes of the game, would have dealt Boston an even more demoralizing loss.
The weary Spurs team that came to town Wednesday, it should be noted, did not include Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, or Tony Parker — the franchise’s stars of the past. It had a bunch of no-names even by a casual fan’s standards, and yet that team led the game for seemingly 99 percent of the game all night, and held on to win the game even though the Celtics were rested and had just about everyone back from protocols, including Tatum.
Of course, the Spurs still have head coach Greg Popovich, and even with a no-name roster, he at least got the team to play team basketball. Too bad the Celtics don’t have a coach like that.
Oh, wait, they kind of do. First-year C’s coach Ime Udoka was initially hired by the Spurs in 2012 and spent seven years coaching under Popovich before he was lured by the 76ers prior to the 2019-20 season. Udoka joined Steve Nash and the Nets last offseason and helped coach Brooklyn’s star-studded team, so Udoka is accustomed to working with superstars and inflated egos.
But he seems lost and confused with his current assembled players in Boston, and they continue to play selfishly and too often play down to the level of their competition. For Celtics fans, this is beyond maddening, and the recent results have been indicative of that style of me-and-my-stats-first play.
Boston is 23rd out of 30 NBA teams in assists per game, and their fourth-quarter assist totals are 29th. Tatum is averaging 3.9 assists per game, and Brown is at 2.6; I also heard a recent stat that Brown is at the bottom of the entire NBA in terms of passes per 60 minutes, and the aforementioned stats just bear out what Celtics fans have seen for years now: that when these two guys get the ball, they rarely if ever pass the ball, preferring instead to ignore their teammates and do things themselves, and perhaps that’s why Tatum is averaging 2.7 turnovers per game and Brown is averaging 3.2, which are pretty embarrassing stats given that the turnovers are likely coming not from errant passes, but from sloppiness.
This is Brown’s sixth year on the Celtics, and Tatum’s fifth, and they should be the team’s unquestioned leaders, but the leadership that they’re showing is on the stat sheet and not in terms of motivating and supporting their teammates. Rarely do you see them exhort their teammates or show any emotion, unless they are complaining to the refs about non-calls.
Heck, does anyone recall seeing either of them ever smile, for that matter? For the so-called faces of the franchise, Brown and Tatum are merely blank stares.
If Wednesday’s home loss to the Spurs was another low point, the Celtics managed to outdo themselves a night later at MSG, when they dominated early and took a 25-point lead. But as I looked up at one point at the televised game and saw Boston still leading by 16 points, it was practically habit to just say to myself, they’re going to blow this game.
And of course, they did. To a Knicks team that over the past 25 seasons, had trailed by 25-plus points in 229 games and had lost every one of them.
And the Celtics will continue to lose in frightening and disgusting ways if they continue playing in this fashion. It doesn’t seem fair to blame the new coach, because he is simply unable to get his team to play the way that it has in the past, and his predecessor, Brad Stevens, had the same problem.
But nothing is getting through to this roster of players, and particularly its so-called superstars, and it not a coaching change, then Stevens – now the team’s GM – will have to bite the bullet and get rid of Tatum or Brown and start over, and hopefully the players who remain will listen and commit themselves to team basketball and not the individual hero ball we see on a nightly basis.
A little less selfishness, a little more heart, and maybe then the Boston Celtics will become must-see viewing again. Right now, they are worth disliking, and certainly worth ignoring.